Sunday, July 15, 2018

Now that's more like it!

For a while, the 2018 Ragtime to Riches Festival looked as if it was going to be a bust.

Only six people showed up to each of the last two early-July old-time piano celebrations here in the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area. 

Fifty chairs were set up for spectators in Memorial Hall at the Big O's First Central Congregational United Church of Christ. The stage was set up with the greatest of care. 

The doors to Memorial Hall at Omaha's oldest currently-practicing Protestant church were opened at 1:00 PM (Central time) on 7-8-2018.

Nobody came.

About ten minutes into the festival's open-piano session, I went over to the church's turn-of-the-20th-Century Anderson & Newton upright to go over the tunes I wanted to do as part of the event's workshop: "Four Ragtime Composers You Might Not Have Known About."

Well, 2:00 PM came...the very time the workshop was to begin.

Still, nobody came.

2:10 PM came and went. So did 2:20 PM.

And yet...nobody came.

Not even the two featured performers I was scheduled to play alongside. 

Finally, at 2:31 PM, one of my fellow members of another local church (St. Paul United Methodist) walked inside First Central's Memorial Hall.

Marc May and I shot the breeze for a while as he and I wondered if this was going to be it...despite all the work to get the word out about the fourteenth annual Omaha ragfest.

One thing was for sure: The workshop had to get canceled. 


Between 2:45 PM and 3:10 PM, twelve people came inside...including featured performers Faye Ballard and Diana Stein.

At 3:05 PM (five minutes later than scheduled), I went up to bat first with R to R 2018's initial concert.

This time, instead of using songs whose titles include the names of states of the US (last year's personal R to R fare), I went for some tunes that were in the Number One spot on the various US pop music charts on Independence Day. And the first number in the concert was a ditty from 1892, "Throw Him Down, McCloskey," written by J.W. Kelly and recorded by a man named Charles Marsh. (Charles was one of music's first one-hit wonders: His wax cylinder made it up to the Number One spot on 6-18-1892 and stayed there for three weeks.)

My next number turned out to be Tin Pan Alley's first blockbuster hit: "After the Ball," the Charles K. Harris tune that sold six million pieces of sheet music once it hit the streets in 1892...and became a smash recording the next year when George J. Gaskin put his lips to it (and made it Number One for ten weeks, beginning on 4-29-1893). 

Those were the only tunes where I used sheet music.

The remaining eight songs in my set were all done from memory..."Golden Slippers," "Sweet Rosie O'Grady," "Hello, Ma Baby," "A Bird in a Gilded Cage," "The Preacher and the Bear," "Sweet Georgia Brown," and two from outside the 1890-1929 period: "Sentimental Journey" and "I Can't Stop Loving You." 

Well, the crowd liked it. (Whew!)

Had to cut my set short so that Diana (a Memphis, TN native who, six weeks earlier, was one of the first finalists in the newly-created Senior Division competition at Mississippi's World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival) could make her Ragtime to Riches debut on time...4:15 PM. 

Actually, Diana launched her set at 4:10 PM...when she took to the church's 2015 Yamaha grand piano.

It was great not only to see her again (first time since the 2012 OTPP Contest), but also to hear her again. The audience really enjoyed Diana's robust, powerful blend of rags, stride, boogie woogie, and blues...and she kicked it all off with two Scott Joplin numbers: "Magnetic Rag" and "Pineapple Rag." (Diana added two more of Scott's compositions later on in her thirteen-tune set: "Solace" and the one that kicked syncopation into high gear, "Maple Leaf Rag.")

Diana's versions of "Nickel in the Slot," "Singin' in the Rain," "Monkey Strut," and "Memories of You" stood out, too, as did her version of James Scott's "Climax Rag." 

The community-college instructor closed out her concert with two Fats Waller tunes: The famous "Ain't Misbehavin'" and the not-as-well-known "Viper Strut."

Diana, what a debut you put on! You tore that Memorial Hall down!

At 7:00 PM, OTPP's contest coordinator kicked off this year's R to R anchor leg by firing off two medleys- one consisting of the theme songs of America's five Armed Forces branches, the other medley devoted to George M. Cohan's music. 

Staying at the Yamaha grand piano, Faye changed the music to "Puttin' on the Ritz."

She likened her set to a party...and what a party it was!

To substantiate that, the Champaign, IL native went back to the medley well to join "Beer Barrel Polka" with "Too Fat Polka." And Faye showed two of ragtime's Big Three composers some love by doing James' "Frog Legs Rag" and Joseph Lamb's "Cleopatra Rag." Plus, the former University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana office manager put in old favorites like "It Had to Be You," "Mack the Knife," "Harlem Rag," and "Sailin' Away on the Henry Clay."

Faye's one of the first people to tell you that the Illinois-turned-Mississippi get-together is, at its core, a cutting contest. And as a case in point, she played her famous version of one of the rags Diana put in her own set: Luckey Roberts' "Pork and Beans."

After playing ten ditties, Faye turned it over to one of this year's C&F Junior Division finalists: Rich Bliesener, a thirteen-year-old who lives in and goes to school in Burlington, IA. (Rich's number was "Humpty Dumpty," a rag written in 1914 by Charley of the coauthors of "Mockingbird Rag.")

Faye's fifteen-tune set ended with "Charleston Rag" and "12th Street Rag." 

And then...the fun spilled over into the afterglow party, where Rich and Faye took to the two pianos. 

In fact, Faye and Rich made this year's R to R afterglow the most successful one in the festival's history.
What's more, the Great Plains Ragtime Society took in $90 in ticket sales...a 50% increase from 2017.

Those of you who came to R to R 14.0, well...all I can say is: 

Thanks for picking this festival up off the floor...and thanks for bringing the FUN!